June 7, 2024 - Tulare Lake Vanishes


June 4, 2024 June 3, 2023

In the early 1800s, Tulare Lake was considered the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. When filled with spring runoff from the snowcapped Sierras, the lake could stretch across 690 square miles (1,780 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of Houston, Texas. Starting around the 1920s rivers feeding the magnificent lake were dammed and diverted, and Tulare Lake began to shrink away to nothing.

As the lake withered, the dry lakebed was covered with farms that produced a variety of crops and livestock. From time to time, when rains were plentiful and snowmelt was exceptional, water reappeared in the lowest section of the lakebed only to quickly disappear in dryer weather. After two major storms drenched California in March 2023, Tulare Lake sprang to life once again. Melting snowpack added to the rising waters. By May, agricultural land producing cotton, tomatoes, safflower, pistachios, wheat, and almonds were inundated. The approaching water prompted the town of Corcoran, located on the edge of the lake’s historic extent, to undertake emergency raising of their levee by 4 feet to protect the town.

Once the snowpack had melted and rains slowed, the summer heat began to evaporate the water, causing Tulare Lake to shrink once again. By May 2024, most of the lakebed had returned to agricultural use with only a few damp areas remaining. It is expected to become fully dry over the summer. However, Lake Tulare will no doubt reappear when rainfall and snowmelt fill the rivers and drench the valley. It’s hard to keep a good lake down.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired a false-color image of Tulare Lake on June 4, 2024, and a second one of the same region on June 3, 2023. Each image can be viewed by clicking on the respective date. This makes it easy to compare the change in the lake level over time.

This type of false-color image helps separate water, which appears blue, from vegetation (bright green) and open land (tan). Deeper water appears darker blue and very shallow water looks pale blue. In contrast, snow (frozen water) looks bright electric blue.

Only a small amount of water remains in the Tulare Lake basin in 2024 and most of that is shallow. The scene is quite different in 2023. Not only is the area visible in 2024 filled with a greater amount of deeper water in 2023, but another large basin existed to the north. Water also filled the edge of the basin in the south as well as Isabella Lake, in the southeast.

Image Facts
Satellite: Terra
Date Acquired: 6/4/2024
Resolutions: 1km (56.4 KB), 500m (122.4 KB), 250m (171.2 KB)
Bands Used: 7,2,1
Image Credit: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC